Monday, January 22, 2007



Back around 1999, two years before XM went on the air, we wanted to engage timeless artists to be a part of the XM “Artist Family”. The idea was to work with important artists from as many genres as possible. By “Timeless” I mean we were looking at artists that would not only be around when we actually launched, but will be around in 100 years. Instead of going for the quick celebrity that may flame out, we set our goals pretty lofty. Bob Dylan, Quincy Jones, Willie Nelson and among several others of similar creative caliber—Wynton Marsalis. Beyond the engagement, it’s important that the relationship is more than a press release. It’s easy to give somebody a bunch of money, put out a release, create a five minute buzz…and that’s it. Signing an artist for the press release, but then often the content is vacant. Every artist in the XM ‘Artist Family’ is INVOLVED. Bob Dylan of course creates a rather revolutionary show; Quincy Jones creates these amazing multi part specials. First there was his eight part “Be Bop to Hip Hop” where he traces the history of music…then RNBQ as he traces the history of R&B. And Wynton does another remarkable show called “From the Swing Seat” as well as being our ambassador of Jazz. The whole relationship intersects perfectly with our facility and connection to the Jazz at Lincoln Center Facility in New York where we’ve recorded everything from the recent “Willie and Wynton” (now THAT’S interesting) concert to Sting to the Dixie Chicks to Andrea Bocelli.On Monday, I read a Q&A with Wynton in USA TODAY. It clearly illustrates the brilliance and intellect of this man. Our first meeting was at the 1999 CES Convention where, through his manager Ed Arrundell, we set up a dinner at the Venetian Hotel to talk. Me, Hugh Panero, Wynton, Ed and our EVP of programming at the time—in the pre Eric Logan days. Instantly we were Wyntonized. He has this uncanny knack to take a song as benign as “Doggy in the Window” and trace the jazz elements in the arrangement. But beyond Jazz, the guy is so evangelical...and smart. The kind of artist that we WANT to engage and give them the theater of the mind palette that only radio can deliver. Rather than babbling on about him, please take a look at the Q&A, it had a profound effect on me that I wanted to share:

Leading a company is often compared to conducting an orchestra. But organizing a jazz band may be a more appropriate analogy. That's because business leaders increasingly want to set free the creative juices of individuality while maintaining the discipline to make music, not noise. USA TODAY's Del Jones went to Wynton Marsalis, 45, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, who was named one of America's Best Leaders in 2006 by Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and U.S. News & World Report.

Q: Does a jazz stage really have anything in common with the typical workplace?

A: When you listen to great jazz musicians, you hear the respect they have for each other's abilities. During a performance, most of the musicians' time is spent listening to others. You see the trust they have for each other because they are always making adjustments and improvising based on what someone else does. I think (drummer) Elvin Jones articulated it best when he said, "In order to play with somebody on a profound level, you have to be willing to die with them." You might not like your colleagues that much, but that is jazz and that is feeling.

Q: What can ruin jazz or business?

A: Lack of integrity. Jazz music always stood as a fortress of integrity. The musicians' skills were so hard-earned that they did not easily sell out. Once the musicians decided to be less — for notoriety, publicity or money — our art began to face challenges: dearth of leadership, reducing human labor to a line item on a budget, and so on. We have control over how we choose to confront our challenges and reconcile contradictions.

Q: The roots of jazz go back to slavery. Do the best leaders have to experience a level of pain to be their most creative? For example, can a company thrive under a CEO born of privilege?

A: The farther away from the sun we are, the colder it gets. To know the essence of a thing requires us to go back to the origination of that thing, because time erodes meaning and enthusiasm. The originators of jazz were a second generation out of slavery and victims of rigorous forms of segregation in which humanity was routinely and institutionally denied. You would think that they were thinking about getting revenge, but in actuality, they were thinking about sharing and communicating with all kinds of people, and they became masters of achieving balance with others. These early jazz musicians worked out a perfect way to co-create using improvisation and a basic unit of rhythm called swing.

Q: What is "swing," and how can a business get it?

A: Swing is a rhythm, an era in American history, and it is a world view. In this world view, there is a belief in the power of a collective ability to absorb mediocre and poor decisions. When a group of people working together trust that all are concerned for the common good, then they continue to be in sync no matter what happens. That is swing. It's the feeling that our way is more important than my way. This philosophy extends to how to treat audiences, consumers, staff or dysfunctional families. This may seem idealistic, but think about how church congregations recite, nearly together and completely unrehearsed. They proceed by feel. Swing is the single objective. It is the core that makes us all want to work together.

Q: How can we unleash creativity and spontaneity on the job?

A: When I was younger, just beginning to play jazz and getting publicity, almost every critic and older musician came out of the woodwork to say that my playing was inauthentic — lacking soul and feeling. They said it was too technical and young. I had not paid enough dues to play with meaning or feeling. The great jazz trumpeter Sweets Edison, who played in Count Basie's 1930s band, asked me "Where are you from?" I said, New Orleans. He said, "What did you grow up doing?" I responded, "Playing." Then he said, "Why are you trying to act like what you are? Be what you are." This was a profound lesson in creativity. It's about being yourself, valuing your own ideas, mining your own dreams. You can be creative inside or outside of tradition. Outside of tradition, you create a new world. Inside of tradition, you create a new way to do the old things much better. Both can be innovative, because in one you reinvigorate a tradition. In the other, you counter-state it.

Q: The originator of jazz, Buddy Bolden, combined church music with music played in houses of ill repute. Is that the ultimate lesson for thinking out of the box?

A: Everybody knew the church music and they knew the whorehouse songs, but they didn't have the courage to put these two opposite genres together. But the innovator understands how things that appear to be opposites are in fact the same. Bolden invented a way of singing the melodies through his horn that made the trumpet, the clarinet, the trombone, sound human.

Q: Every company longs for creative employees. How does a jazz band get swing without chaos?

A: Jazz is the collective aspirations of a group of musicians, shaped, given logic and organized under the extreme pressure of time. When we work together, the music is swinging, and when we don't, it's not. The perception of jazz is that we all get along. In actuality, we're always trying to get along, and it is the integrity of that process that determines the quality of the swing. A business that swings will definitely be successful.

Q: On stage, what's the difference between a leader and a follower?

A: Children are only responsible for themselves. As adults, we find ourselves responsible to and for more people, our families, our neighborhoods, our communities, our country, our world. Our ascension to a mature level of citizenship is directly related to the responsibility and size of things we choose to take on. In the arts, this ladder leads from your personal artistry to your art form, then on to all the arts and finally to humanity itself.

Q: So, is there a boss in a jazz band who takes charge?

A: In jazz, hierarchy is determined by your ability to play, not your position in the band. The philosophy of jazz is antithetical to the commoditization of people. It is rooted in the elevation and enrichment of people. The reason that jazz is the most flexible art form in the history of the planet is because it believes in the good taste of individuals. It believes in the human power to create wonderful things, and it embraces that instead of attempting to administrate it away with senseless titles and useless hierarchies

.…and so the Gospel according to Wynton. Quality is timeless.


At 3:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Here is an EX. of an Issue,

20 On 20, I could be getting "Old" BUT, I think I hear girlie songs etc,....
anyway, Your people say, "If the song sucks/ Don't vote for it etc,.

What XM "20 on 20" should be doing is, ALONG with your choice of top 20, GET a RESPONSE ( interactive, more feedback, AND THE top 20 on 20 would be "TRUER", A true top 20. In other words , you have top hit ( say 5000 votes, BUT out of 20,000 altogether, 7000.00 say its sucks........TRUE HIT will score BIG, and XM gets better feedback,
I can continue this "Trickle Down Chain", But
"Cheap and Crazeee"

At 8:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry to go off topic again, Lee, but your "Then Again Live" series is one of the best things you have there of the XM cannon... that, sir, is greatness... the America show is one not to miss... I just wish you would bring back the live channel and program concerts and this show as well as other shows like this on it... oh well.. like I said before, when the sales level out, look at your past programming and XM will return to the best satellite radio company again... Mike...

At 8:18 PM, Anonymous Brian Levin said...

Hey Lee.

Check me out doing my best Bob Dylan. I produce/write/act in a comedy show for Turner's Superdeluxe.

Brian Levin

At 11:15 PM, Blogger Fwwank said...

It's like Gumbo!

Wynton is the MAN.

At 3:55 PM, Anonymous Buzz Ullrich said...

Mr. Abrams,

You picked upon what may be the best article I have read this young year. Thank you for printing and blogging about it.

Wynton Marsalis' viewpoints and comments clearly show his ability to articulate what so many of us long to state about business, even life in general. That is --- we all have been given an ability to move forward whether in business or in life if we just give persistent effort.

As a musician (like my contemporary Mr. Marsalis who is less than four years senior to me, I still do perform or have performed jazz and classical, as well as numerous other genres) AND a broadcaster (my entire adult life), I've frequently read what Mr. Marsalis has said about the music industry and commonalities in life. It has become apparent that paying attention to Marsalis' "outside the box" thinking - whether published, on-air or in concert - can be critical to those of us who then see or feel the meaning of his words. One can find just HOW MUCH OF A LEADER each of us could or SHOULD be by utilizing our brains to a fuller extent --- which is what JAZZ music does for many of us. But even if one isn't musically inclined, that doesn't preclude any person from "thinking outside the box".

It can be simply this: WHEN we TRY to do something which expands our own "normal range", and we CONTINUE to do so on a regular basis --- we simply become better at thinking and doing.

I realize that is not Marsalis' only point, but it is a point worth digesting.

Certainly, this point isn't new. Nike uses this point effectively in their marketing. It's both sensible and direct. Just do it --- BECAUSE when you practice (driving a vehicle, smiling at a stranger, kissing someone, musicianship, etc.) and expand your horizons, you improve and perhaps improve those around you. But the improvement won't occur if we don't "do it" in the first place.

Should the fates allow, one day I'll work for you at XM (I've applied with Maxx Myrick) AND get to play a duet with Wynton Marsalis on trumpet. Maybe at the same time.

I will be practicing both broadcasting and musicianship regularly in between now and the occurance of those moments.

Buzz Ullrich
St. Louis MO

At 5:46 PM, Anonymous Tim DeMillo said...

Dear Lee,

That Q & A session with Mr. Marsalis was simply stellar. One would have to possess a heart made of weathered barn wood and a mind deeply involved with sitcoms to be unaffected with the sheer majesty of his humility coupled with an uncommonly deep understanding of his music and how it is intertwined forever with those silvery threads that bind artists one to another through the generations. Having never heard him speak at any length outside of the customary remarks following a television performance, it was no small thing to read the transcript of that interview with nothing short of awe and respect. His clarity, ingenuity and eloquence ran the gauntlet of topics with such an easy grace, like the peerless power of his music which flows from bar to bar: The Other Unfinished Symphony which is his life. I envy his peace. Jazz has had its way with him and, like it's mother, Gospel Music, we are all better off for this wonderful gift from God.

No wonder I tear up when I hear this guy play. And bein' a half generation younger than Mr. Dylan over there on your radio show and a home-grown Hibbing boy to boot, tearin' up ain't somethin' we regularly do...

My thanks, sir. Please keep it comin'.

Tim DeMillo

P.S. And, Hey Bob! Check out "DeMillo Live @ Tom & Jerry's In Chisholm, MN" on YouTube. Might give ya pause and remind you for the umpteenth time how many poets/singers/songwriters that you continue to inspire. Thank YOU too!


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